Fit to drop? Game risks running its star performers into the ground

As England prepare for a truly daunting schedule, the 'too much cricket' debate rages

Burnout is the hottest topic in cricket. The fear that the excruciating demands on top players will extinguish their glow and lead to wretched performances in an impoverished game has been inversely blazing away.

Last week, Ian Botham echoed the thoughts of a nation by indicating that Andrew Flintoff had to be given proper rest, if not wrapped in cotton wool for most of the summer. Botham was rightly concerned about one player - anyone who saw Flintoff towards the end of the India tour was witnessing a body on the verge of rebellion - but he was fairly late to the general debate.

He had been preceded by several players, former stars and administrators. It is a subject that not only polarises opinion but invites knee-jerk reactions. On the one hand: "They're doing too much, they'll all have breakdowns, it's devaluing the game," to paraphrase Tim May, head of the players' worldwide union Fica. On the other: "Get on with it, you wimps, it's your job and 105 days maximum out of 365 is better than working for a living," not to put too many words in the mouth of Pakistan's former coach and captain, Javed Miandad.

In this bitter climate it seemed appropriate to seek a calm, neutral opinion from Steve Bull, the sports psychologist, who has worked with British Olympians for 20 years and with the England cricket team for almost a decade.

"These recent discussions are prompted in part by the elevation in demands in terms of how much they play, and that has clearly increased," said Bull. "But it's not just that because the old-time players will say 'yes but we used to play every day and bowl thousands of overs and we were all right' and so on and so on. But it's not that these international players are playing a lot of cricket, it's the number of big games, the challenge of continuously being expected to peak. That's different from just playing a lot."

This was a point not quite addressed by Malcolm Speed, chief executive of the International Cricket Council, who last week defended his organisation's programme and their guidelines which limit teams to 15 Tests and 30 one-day internationals a year.

The MCC World Cricket Committee, consisting of 14 of the great and the good of cricket, discussed the subject when they met for the first time last Monday and noted the intensity of one-day internationals. Adam Gilchrist, Australia's wicketkeeper- batsman, warned his country's selectors that they had to be careful about expecting too much of players. Several others, including Michael Vaughan, Sachin Tendulkar, Sunil Gavaskar and Javed, tossed in their tuppenn'orth.

The reason probably lies in recent and imminent playing schedules, which might meet guidelines but defy all other sense. Gilchrist might have been about to start a five-month break but between 18 June last year and 23 April this year - 10 months - he played 31 one-dayers.

Australia played 17 Tests from the start of the Ashes late last July until 9 April this year, ending their programme by finishing a series in South Africa and starting one in Bangladesh only five days later.

England and India finished a Test series only to play seven one-day internationals in 18 days (six in the event because one was washed out). Three days later, India went to Abu Dhabi to play Pakistan in two matches on successive days. Between 25 October last year and 19 April this year - six months - India played 24 one-day internationals.

England are about to embark on the most daunting of schedules. They have seven Tests this summer interspersed with 10 one-day internationals, followed by the ICC Champions Trophy in India (minimum three games), the tour of Australia including Test and one-day series, and the World Cup, all by next May. Breaks are almost non-existent, as is time for extended proper training from the start of the First Test against Sri Lanka next week - the earliest ever start to a Test in England, which follows the latest finish to one last summer.

Amid all that, most, maybe all England followers, would deem that the retention of the Ashes is the absolute top priority. The thought that the phrase "Ashes burnout" may not be only tautology is hardly comforting.

But before this even started, England's official vice-captain and prolific opener, Marcus Trescothick, walked out of the tour of India in February. If the full reason may never be known (until he writes his book), it is not difficult to work out that a combination of factors, allied to home and the burdens of the game, meant that he had just had enough. It remains especially poignant because of all England's players Trescothick is the one probably most besotted with the game for its own sake.

Bull said that peaking for the Ashes was quite possible but it would need a plan. "It's naïve for any pundit or spectator to imagine that a team can peak in May, can peak in July, again in August, then in October and November and, oh, by the way, we'll peak again in March. By definition you can't have a peak without there being a trough of sorts. You want to minimise troughs but if you eliminate troughs altogether then you eliminate peaks as well."

Burnout, of course, has become a lazy, catch-all phrase. Bull attempted some perspective. "I always think of three stages: fatigue, staleness and burnout."

Fatigue is when what you are doing feels like hard work mentally and physically but through gritted teeth you can go out and perform. Staleness is a state where you might not feel desperately tired but you cannot deliver peak performances. A break is required. Burnout goes beyond that because someone has then reached the stage where only a long break will do from everything that caused the state to be reached. Bull suggested that there were three aspects: mental, physical, emotional.

Physical breakdown can be every bit as wearing as mental breakdown. Fast bowlers are only too aware of that. Ian Pont, the Essex bowling coach whose book on fast bowling is out in May, is at present trying to help Alex Tudor make his latest comeback as a fast bowler.

"Alex's body has let him down and he has had horrendous injuries," said Pont. "His challenge is to convince himself that his body is able to carry on doing the job. Fans and media ask the question and that impacts again. It's not so much about having a big heart as having the belief and trusting yourself."

Yet burnout was utterly alien to someone like Alec Stewart, England's most capped player, who went on until he was 40. "I never once turned up for a match that I didn't want to play in," he said. "Maybe that's just me, but it is a reasonable topic. I have no easy answer but maybe they should reduce the number of one-dayers."

His closeness to England's cricketers made Bull reluctant to be drawn on their impending tasks. "I would say that you can't peak for 12 months a year," he said. "England have a challenging time ahead of them but with a strategy in place, and I know there will be one in place, they can manage and they can win." It may have to involve wrapping Flintoff in cotton wool.

BURNOUT ISSUE

"You want to eliminate troughs but if you eliminate troughs altogether then you eliminate peaks as well"

Steve Bull, Sports Psychologist

"Alex Tudor's challenge is to convince himself that his body is able to carry on doing the job "

Ian Pont, Essex Bowling Coach

Tired and tested: Six views from both sides of the boundary

1 It's greed taking over from common sense. If I was Andrew Flintoff I would say I'm looking forward to the summer and I'm looking forward to Australia and in between I'm on holiday.

Ian Botham, Former England Player

2 The stakeholders, the spectators, miss out. You get rotation but that devalues the games, the teams and the spectacle.

Tim May, Chief Executive International Players' Assoc

3 Two days between most Test matches that we've just played is not nearly enough. We had guys who, if we were fair dinkum, shouldn't have played. Shouldn't have taken the field because they were just totally exhausted.

Ricky Ponting, Australia Captain

4 Players have to realise it is a two-way street. They cannot complain of playing too much and then head off for a lucrative spell of English county cricket. They are doing something that the vast majority of people that watch them can only dream of, and they are well-paid too.

Malcolm Speed, ICC Chief Executive

5 Burnout doesn't happen overnight. Once it happens it's too late. Michael Vaughan's job is to win games. I can't say to him I only want Flintoff to bowl 12 overs in a day.

Duncan Fletcher, England Coach

6 All these complaints about too much cricket are rubbish. In our day we yearned for more.

Javed Miandad, Former Pakistan Batsman

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